NEA Baptist Clinic cardiothoracic surgeon is taking charge of change

As a young medical student observing a trauma surgery at Detroit Receiving Hospital, Paul Levy, M.D., needed only a nudge from a mentor to know where his destiny lay.

“He said, ‘Hold the heart.’ I reached in the chest and did that, and it was magic. I knew at that point this was for me,” he said. “It’s the only specialty where you can take a major organ system and have an incredibly big impact on somebody’s life once you fix it. It’s just wonderful.”

Dr. Levy graduated from the Wayne State University School of Medicine in 1988. “(Wayne State) really made me a scrapper. I realized it really is about you making it happen. It’s about the three As of private practice: availability, affability, then ability. Wayne really gave that to me. It also gave me the breadth of experience that was a mile deep with respect to what’s expected in clinical medicine,” he said. “You really had to work hard to be a good doctor. A lot of good learning happens at 2 and 3 in the morning. It was coming so fast and furious. There were days I never went home. I forgot where my car was parked.”

A lot has changed since then – for him and for health care.

“Medicines and preventive care really work,” he said. “People don’t have as big of heart attacks. But, because of the economy they’re letting (their) health care lapse. Patients are coming back with more extreme problems, too.”
When deductibles and copays for patients increase, “they stop coming,” he added. “Health care falls to the bottom of the chain. They have a big, massive heart attack because they ignored it. We should be focusing on the preventive end of it. It has to be affordable and accessible.”

In an effort to gain a better understanding of the health care dilemma Americans face, Dr. Levy returned to school in 2009 – this time to earn a Master of Business Administration degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville’s Physician Executive program.

“I had surgery and clinical down, and I wanted more,” he said. “I see where the value lies. It’s looking at all the metrics of the score card – quality, service, financial – that all come into play. Running a practice, you have to know the margins and know where your liabilities and assets lie.”

Dr. Levy was the busiest cardiothoracic surgeon in New Mexico, but earning his MBA has helped him better manage health care change, he said.

“He’s tremendous. When he came to our practice, his willingness to innovate was evident right away,” said Kathy Blake, M.D., M.P.H., a cardiologist and one-time partner of Dr. Levy’s at the New Mexico Heart Institute in Albuquerque. “He made a commitment where we would offer state-of-the-art mitral valve repair surgery to patients. He made that a huge commitment and delivered on it.”

Before Dr. Levy’s arrival nearly a decade ago, many prospective patients were traveling out of state for the surgery, Dr. Blake said. “He really set us on a track where we’re saying, ‘There will be protocols for patients so all the different elements are offered consistently to every single person every single time,’” she said.

Dr. Blake is now a vice president at the American Medical Association in Chicago, where she oversees the AMA’s physician consortium performance improvement. She was his partner in 2009 when Dr. Levy designed, introduced and implemented a year-long, multi-team performance improvement program based on quality of patient care at the Heart Hospital of New Mexico as part of his MBA program requirements. The project, “Optimizing Hospital Productivity in a Health Care Culture: Can Nursing Satisfaction be the Answer?” led to several measurable outcomes. The program decreased patient length of stay by a full two days, increased patient satisfaction 21.6 percent to 83.5 percent and saved the facility $1.14 million. Nurse satisfaction also skyrocketed, Dr. Levy said.

“It’s still amazing to me, the compassion that people feel from a team,” he said. “We’re in a body shop, but with a sense of compassion, and people pick up on that.”

Dr. Blake attributes the project’s measurable success to Dr. Levy’s enthusiastic leadership.

“Every single day in the hospital was meant to deliver. That’s where he was really able to work with a team” that included fellow physicians, hospital administrators, pharmacists, nurses and more, she said. “Everyone knows that if you have all on board, the patients benefit from that. He was able to tease out in the various questionnaires what stood in the way of people being passionate at work… . To enlist people at the hospital to say, ‘We’re going to get something out of this too.’”

Health policy has changed dramatically and reimbursements from insurance companies have diminished since Dr. Levy began practicing, “but the reward you get when you’re helping another human being, fixing their heart, taking care of cancer in a lung? Your bond with that patient hasn’t changed, and that’s what keeps me coming back.”

Dr. Levy, a Livonia, Mich., native, earned his undergraduate degree from Kalamazoo College. After WSU, he completed a general surgery residency at the University of Illinois’ Cook County Hospital-affiliated program in Chicago, then a fellowship in cardiothoracic surgery at Northwestern University.

In June 2013, he moved his family from Albuquerque, N. M., to Jonesboro, Ark., home of Arkansas State University and the NEA Baptist Health System. He was recruited to design and run the cardiology department for the system’s clinic.

He previously worked for private health care entities, he said. He served as chief of surgery at Heart Hospital of New Mexico in Albuquerque. He was named the top cardiothoracic surgeon in 2011, 2012 and 2013 by Albuquerque the Magazine’s Top Doctors edition, chosen by more than 1,000 peers.

Dr. Levy was appointed to the practice management task force for the National Society of Thoracic Surgery in 2012, which holds annual or semi-annual symposiums and regular practice management updates on “navigating the waters more wisely,” he said.

Written by Andrea Westfall; reproduced courtesy of the Wayne State University School of Medicine
Photos courtesy of Paul Levy, M.D.